In spite of one of the hottest summers ever recorded in East Idaho, the 2021 wildfire season was much less severe regionally than experts had anticipated.
The Eastern Idaho Interagency Fire Center documented a total of 103 wildfires in the region between February and Oct. 6. The fires burned about 8,500 acres combined and destroyed several structures, says Sarah Wheeler, a fire information officer with EIIFC. Of those fires, humans caused 67 while lightning ignited the other 36. No humans died as a result of the wildfires in 2021, Wheeler added.
“We’re very surprised with how this fire season turned out,” Wheeler said. “Initially, when we were getting data from our predictive weather services everything was saying that we were supposed to see above normal fire activity in Eastern Idaho. That was because the weather was supposed to be hotter and everything was in alignment for a pretty bad season locally for fires. However, we can all see that didn’t happen and we were pleasantly surprised. It’s not over, but with the recent snow it’s definitely on the downturn.”
The Eastern Idaho Interagency Fire Center opened in the spring of 1995 as a cooperative effort between the Idaho Falls District Bureau of Land Management and Caribou-Targhee National Forest. Facilities and resources are shared between the two agencies to provide for fire coordination on over 7.5 million acres of public lands, encompassing 21 counties within four states including Southeast Idaho, southern Montana, western Wyoming and northern Utah.
Last year, The EIIFC recorded the first fire in March and the last fire occurred on Nov. 6. A total of 150 fires in 2020 burned more than twice the acreage (nearly 20,000 acres) of the fires this summer. Humans caused 129 wildfires and lightning caused the other 21 fires in 2020.
“The wildfires last year were significantly caused by humans in 2020,” Wheeler said. “That is likely due to many new people recreating in the woods who may have been unfamiliar with putting campfires out or watching out for high dry grass under their vehicles.”
The most damaging wildfires in Eastern Idaho this summer were the Lavaside Fire southwest of Firth, the Cold Creek Fire near American Falls and the Lusk Fire near Paulina. All three of these fires resulted in nearly 75 percent (6,300 acres) of the total acreage burned in 2021 (about 8,500 acres).
The Lavaside Fire burned for about four days in late April before it was fully contained, scorching over 1,200 acres of private land. It also destroyed one home, as well as an abandoned mobile home, and damaged another home.
The Cold Creek Fire burned for over 24 hours in mid-June before it was fully contained, scorching nearly 3,500 acres. It also destroyed two homes southeast of American Falls.
Lastly, the Lusk Fire burned for about five days in late July before it was fully contained, scorching over 1,600 acres. It did not damage any structures.
Wheeler said that despite the hot summer (Pocatello recorded it’s hottest summer on record) there was enough precipitation every few weeks in July to bring up fuel moisture in grasses and minimize the extreme fire danger.
Additionally, the mild wildfire season came as a surprise to Wheeler considering the region experienced record numbers of people enjoying outdoor recreation activities on public lands. Wheeler opined that many people opted to recreate at destinations near water and we’re likely very cautious about fire danger with how hot it was outside and all of the smoke from large wildfires in surrounding states.
“We’ve seen record numbers of people recreating outdoors everywhere,” Wheeler said. “Here at the Caribou-Targhee National Forest we don’t have the same kind of tracking systems like the National Park Service does, but Grand Teton National Park saw over 100,000 more people in August than they have had in any other year. There were swarms of people out in the outdoors.”
Wheeler continued, “But we did find that because it was so hot, people were more interested in water recreation activities. The year before last our campgrounds were constantly full and this year they were not quite as full as 2020 but Palisades and anything that had to do with water was overwhelmingly full and past capacity. That probably does correlate. When it’s 105 degrees outside in Southeast Idaho, nobody wants to set up camp when you can be out on a boat, canoeing, kayaking or fishing out on the water. The heat coupled with the smoke from California were good cognitive reminders, so perhaps people took more precautions.”
In terms of the smoke throughout the region for 2021, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality documented a total of 45 days with degraded air quality throughout the period in which air quality degradation began and ended, which was July 9 to Sept. 15. The Idaho DEQ quantifies air quality using an index that rates days using colors: green for good, yellow for moderate, orange for unhealthy for sensitive groups and red for unhealthy.
For Pocatello In 2021, the first yellow, or moderate, air quality day occurred on July 9 and the last occurred on Sept. 15 for a total of 68 days, according to Clay Woods, an airshed coordinator for the Idaho DEQ.
“Pocatello had 38 yellow days, six orange days and one red day in that 68-day span for a total of 45 days of degraded air quality,” Woods said. “This represents 66 percent of the days during that period.”
For comparison, the period of degraded air quality for 2020 started on Aug. 18 and ended on Oct. 15 for a total of 58 days. Pocatello reported 26 yellow days, two orange days and four red days for a total of 32 days of degraded air quality during that span, which represents 55 percent of the days for that period.
“This quick look at the data does show that we had more degraded (hazy) days this summer than last,” Woods said. “The smoke also started earlier in the summer and ended earlier this year, though we could still have some smoky days this year from Southern California fires still burning, depending on the weather.”
Woods added that the Idaho DEQ last month introduced a new mobile app, AIR Idaho, to provide forecast and current air quality information to help protect the health of Idahoans during poor air quality episodes. The AIR Idaho app features air quality information relative to the user’s location as well as an interactive real-time map that displays data from over 30 monitoring stations across the state, said Woods, adding that it also provides a three-day forecast detailing whether the air quality is expected to deteriorate and if there are times when air quality is expected to be better.